When LeBron hit the game-winner against the Pacers in Game 1, I jumped around like a kid in a bouncy hut. I texted my die-hard NBA buddies, and stayed up for an extra hour overloading on all the media coverage. It was a phenomenal move and a great ending to a competitive game. What’s funny is I have no skin in the game. I’m a college guy. No loyalties to any pro squad. Only watch the NBA for love of the game.
In the morning, still hyped from the game’s rollercoaster ending, I began to ponder what happened the previous evening. Not so much the X’s and O’s, but more my reaction to the game. I genuinely love watching LBJ play and always root for him to do well. Is this acceptable behavior? In today’s society are we allowed to openly like superstars?
It’s difficult enough being a superstar. Only a handful of athletes each generation have the combined abilities and work ethic to reach that upper-echelon. Being a likeable superstar is even more arduous. For one, it’s nearly impossible to gain public adoration. Secondly, it’s even more difficult to hold onto the love, especially while in the prime of a career.
Our nation has become inherently skeptical. We are put off by the idea of notoriety. The most common example is with popular culture. Movies, television shows and, especially, bands gain cult followings during their upstart years. As they transition to the mainstream, these vessels lose indie cred. Diehard fans turn, hurling catcalls such as “sellout,” “accessible,” and “broad.” The general populous’ admiration is fleeting, and seemingly shallow. It has becomes uncool to like anything with broad appeal, regardless of substance.
Media chicken hawks like Star magazine and Perez Hilton have built empires on the ashes of celebrities they cover. They pump up people’s careers, only to tear them down without even a side-glance. It’s a cruel dualism of helping a person chase the American Dream, only to snatch it away once at the summit.
Gone are the days of Washington, Kennedy, and FDR. For nearly 200 years America loved its presidents. They were our equivalent to Britain’s Royal Family. Then Richard Nixon and Watergate happened. We suddenly realized that our government lies to us, and may have too much power. Sure there was discontent building before Watergate, but Nixon was the watershed moment when America’s views of the presidency changed. Clinton lied about sex; W. lied about WMDs; and John Edwards debuted as the world’s most evil man. We’re now a jaded society. It’s impossible to take any public figure at their word.
The trickledown effect has now reached sports. No more DiMaggio or Staubach. We’ll probably never see a campaign like “Be like Mike.” Our generation is much too cynical.
Tiger Woods was America’s darling. We watched him grow up, knew his family, followed every victory. Then we watched his personal—and the professional—life crumble. Our country’s golden child was not the man we had collectively raised.
Brett Favre played every game like he was in a schoolyard. He drew plays in the mud. He was a throwback. We mourned his father, Big Irv, with Brett on national TV. Then he held the Packers organization hostage and fell in love with the spotlight. Next thing we know he’s snapping pictures of his dong, leaving creepy voicemails, and straying from his cancer-surviving wife. What happened to the aw shucks man-child we all loved?
Michael Phelps set American and Olympic records. He was a model civilian. Then we saw him hit the bong. And he got a DUI. Sponsors and anti-drug activists gasped. America’s newest icon was a law breaking, alcohol abusing stoner.
The disconnect between superstars and fans is threefold. One, we are an angry nation. Two, we have been defrauded by some of this generation’s greatest athletes. Three, technology has narrowed the wall between celebrity and fan, allowing everyone to peek behind the veil.
Things aren’t so hot in America right now. They haven’t been for a while. The Great Recession, housing burst, staggering unemployment, and other factors breed discontent. It’s only natural that this unease has permeated sports viewing.
It’s difficult to watch kids out of high school sign lucrative endorsement deals, while you stare down foreclosure. It’s tough swallowing city taxes that will fund a new stadium when your three jobs barely make for rent—forget covering your entry into said stadium. It is damn hard rooting for celebrities who have the world by the tail, knowing that they are only 1% of the nation. When you live in a dying middle class it’s natural to feel towards the people who seemingly have been handed everything on a golden platter.
When you factor in free agency, it’s even more infuriating. We no longer root for players as much as we root for cities. Rare is the Tim Duncan or Brian Urlacher that stays his entire career in one city. Players leaving for new locales are embarrassments to our city. If we have to grind away in blue-collar cities and evaporating small towns, why should they have the luxury of choosing a “hot market?” It’s human nature to look at the next guy and question, “why not me?”
Internet sites like to make lists, brackets, and other compellations. Well, somebody should make an Asshole Hall of Fame. There have been way too many superstars who have tainted the sports we love. They’ve jaded our entire generation. Players once held in the highest regard destroyed the purity of their games. I’m not talking about personal affairs, scandals, or arrests. I’m talking about nefarious activity that has directly harmed the game itself; extracted purity from sports.
Baseball has too many to name, but Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez first come to mind. All-time greats and they all cheated. Not only did they cheat, they broke the law to cheat to set more records to make more money. They ruined some of the most hallowed records of America’s pastime. 20 years of baseball are tainted. Two decades under a cloud of suspicion. From now on, no player can ever have an otherworldly season without answering questions about steroids.
Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery were track superstars. Then they pissed on the sport. They cast shadows over legendary names like Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner Kersee, and the late Flo-Jo. It’s easy to be impressed by Usain Bolt’s cheetah-like magnificence. It’s equally as easy to say, “I’ll believe it when I see him pee in a cup.”
Lance Armstong is probably the worst of the lot. America loves underdog stories and his was the finest around. After beating cancer, at a time when the big C was still considered a death sentence, he then dominated cycling’s most prestigious events. Only he was just the best cheater of a sport full of cheaters. Beyond his cheating were the lies. Armstrong attacked journalists, masseuses, and teammates—really any whistleblowers. He ruined lives and destroyed credibility just to save his own neck. We loved this man. If Lance could do it, no hurdle was too big for us. Then he broke America’s collective heart. His was the straw that broke the camel’s back. If he, America’s sweetheart, could be so deceitful, how could we trust again?
Impact of these hall of famers goes well beyond their sports. There is most definitely a blast radius. Their deceitfulness extends to every sport. It hits every athlete that goes on a hot streak. By no means are they the only cheaters, but they are the faces of fallen angels—the ones that killed credibility for all athletes.
Finally, we reach technology. Between 24-hour sports programing, Internet blogs, and Twitter, fans have more access to celebrities than ever. It’s often said that Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan wouldn’t make it in today’s media climate. We know every foible and every misstep. We know all about the economics and have graduated beyond watching sports just for competition. There are very few secrets.
Such unprecedented access has turned sports into a realist exhibition. We no longer mythologize athletes or teams. We have too much information to naively watch games. We’re privy to the private lives of Phelps, Woods and others, and then project our beliefs and insecurities. Technology has humanized our superstars.
Also, with the Internet, everyone has a voice—for good or ill. Anyone capable of typing can send opinions into the world. New media circumvents editors, therefore people on a whim can send thoughts/feelings/emotions out into the world without fully considering their impact. Mixed with the anger previously discussed, technology makes for a combustible partner.
Which brings me back to LeBron James. One of the reasons I’m so fond of LeBron is that he handles himself perfectly. He’s grown up in the spotlight, performed up to—maybe above—expectations, and conducts his personal life in an exemplary manner.
In my eyes, LeBron has never had a misstep. The Decision was a miscalculation of audience perception, but by no means did the man do anything wrong. Hell, he raised money for charity. His Decision is the most angry charity donation in modern history. If anything, the jersey burnings, racial epithets, and overall vitriol that spewed from Cleveland served as an unwelcome reminder to how much importance we place on sports—the word fan, after all, is an abbreviation of fanatic. Fanaticism is rarely a healthy quality.
Compared to his peers, LeBron was never in a rape trial, never in a “stop snitching” video, has never gotten a DUI, never been on trial for murder, and hasn’t had a sex scandal. He’s surrounded himself with good advisors and followed their guidance.
For that, I have no problem rooting for the superstar. I love seeing athletes in their primes. Love seeing how far they can push their greatness. It’s tougher each day to put down cynicism and respect the greatness of a select few pantheon players. Willed ignorance, I guess. But I’ll keep rooting for those greats, hoping they can resurrect the purity once found in sports. Hopefully they don’t let me down. After all, ignorance is bliss.